With China’s preferred candidate selected as Hong Kong’s next chief executive – another blow to the morale of the city’s democracy activists – their young leaders are taking a page from Beijing’s playbook and preparing for a long battle.
At the leafy campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, there is little sign of the fervour that drove thousands of students to stage the Umbrella Movement street protests, which brought parts of the city to a standstill for months in 2014.
“We still all care about Hong Kong’s social issues, democracy, Beijing’s interference,” said Ceci Chow, a third-year nursing student, as she waited on campus next to a bronze statue of the “goddess of democracy”. But she concedes there might not be the same “driving force” for action.
Student union leaders like Chinese University Student Union external vice-president Cheryl Chu and external secretary Thomas Lee agree the commitment is still there, but they doubt mass protests are the way to go, for now.
The Umbrella Movement ultimately failed to persuade Beijing to grant full democracy in elections for chief executive, so Carrie Lam will assume the post in July, thanks to the backing last month of an electoral college packed with mostly Beijing loyalists.
In the run-up to Lam’s victory, student leaders eschewed public protests and opted instead to use social media, leaflets and street booths to present their case that the election was undemocratic.
“We need to look further in future, and look at how to slowly make the people close to us change a little. Only then will we feel we can achieve something tangible in future,” Lee said.
Many activist leaders have been weighed down by legal battles. A day after Lam’s selection, nine were charged with public nuisance offences for their part in the protests and more arrests could follow.
Leaders of Hong Kong's 2014 Umbrella Movement occupy protest are at Police HQ to turn themselves in for prosecution after receiving summons
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Victories in last September’s elections to the city’s legislature, when one in five voters backed younger candidates including Umbrella Movement leaders and self-determination advocates, rapidly turned sour when two newly elected legislators were disqualified. Beijing and a local court ruled Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching had not taken their oaths properly after inserting a dig at China.
The government has since sought to disqualify four more pro-democracy lawmakers for invalid oaths, while two others charged for inciting the Umbrella protests might be removed if they are jailed for over a month.
For some young people like Derek Lam, 23, a theology student who has been arrested five times in two years for various protests, there is a financial cost to their activism.
Lam has not been convicted, but says his high-profile arrests mean he now struggles to find work and might not be able to graduate if he fails to pay his half-year school fee of HK$24,000 (US$3,090).
But the setbacks have not deterred him.
“The Chinese Communist Party will never rest, so we can’t rest as well … Luckily, we have 30 years, and after 30 years, our opponents will not be the people who are in power now, but people our age. So a lot depends on how we influence our peers now.”
This July, on the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China from British rule, China’s President Xi Jinping is expected to visit the city. But while many activists are appalled by what they see as a gradual ratcheting up of Chinese control during the 50-year period of transitional autonomy agreed with Britain, they are not expecting a protest on the scale of 2014.
“The fight for democracy doesn’t just take place on the streets,” said Joshua Wong, the public face of the Umbrella Movement, who was just 17 when the protests began.
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“And the fight for Hong Kong’s autonomy doesn’t take place in years. We are talking about a battle of 20, 30 years.”
The challenge for Beijing is that many of Hong Kong’s young people, rather than growing to accept China’s growing role in the city’s affairs, have become further estranged from the mainland and are increasingly warming to a localism movement that puts the city’s autonomy, interests and culture first.
“Hong Kong youths are now more eager to step up and say we’re Hong Kongers, we love Hong Kong and distinguish ourselves from the Chinese. There is a very strong Hong Kong identity, and this will not waver,” said University of Hong Kong‘s Student Union president Wong Ching-tak, 20.
Disqualified legislators Leung and Yau hope identity will mobilize supporters when the next battleground issue crops up.
“There will be a last war … There will be a very large-scale social movement that emerges,” Leung said. “And it will determine whether there’s still a road ahead for Hong Kong as we know it, or not.”